Nintendo 3DS Should Not Have Focused On 3D

I love my Nintendo 3DS. It’s probably the Nintendo handheld I’ve been most devoted to over the years, likely because it’s the system for which I managed to build up the biggest year-one library. So far there hasn’t been a single game purchase that I’ve regretted, and that’s something I haven’t been able to say for any other device in my entire gaming history.

But I do have one slight issue with the 3DS – and that’s the 3D effect. You see, I hardly ever use the darn thing. It’s not that I don’t think the 3D looks good. I actually think it’s pulled off rather well in most games. It’s just that I don’t particularly care about it, and since I’m so used to playing games without 3D, I’d much rather play them in a way that I’m already comfortable with.

Yet that expensive little 3D screen probably tacked a good number of dollars onto the system’s price (as well as the price of its games). How else do you suppose Nintendo thought they could get away with charging the same for a handheld that they do for their home consoles? Obviously that didn’t go too well – they had to slash prices and sell the system at a loss just to make sure they moved units.

I think the 3DS would have been much better off without the 3D effect – and you can hop inside to check out my reasons why.

The Cost Factor

Reports from around the time of the 3DS launch last year pegged its manufacturing costs at somewhere around 33% higher than the DSi. Increases in costs due to minor features like the 3D cameras, included memory card, better processors, and added Circle Pad were miniscule – it seems that the larger part of the cost hike was thanks to the brand-spanking new 3D screen.

Bearing in mind that the 3DS’s massive price cut was also about 33%, and that after the cut the system was selling at a loss, this means that had they not included the 3D screen, Nintendo could still have likely sold it for a profit. Of course, they also could have released the system at a $170 price point to begin with… which leads me to my next point.

No 3D Would Have Freed Up Processing Power for Other Things

I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? Having to display images twice in order to take advantage of the 3D display means that the system can only tap into so much of its graphical processing power; the rest has to be saved for the 3D effect. Sure, games can allocate power differently based on the 3D settings, but I think a lot of people would concur that if you’re going to pack a nice processor in your handheld, you should at least use it for the core visuals and not an optional function like 3D.

3DS was said to pack more power than Wii, and it’s a shame to see that so much of that power was pushed in a direction that didn’t prove to be the correct one in the end.

Nintendo Misread Reactions to 3D

3DS demoed very well at E3. Everyone from both the media and the industry seemed to love the heck out of the 3D effect, praising it to high heavens and excited to see where the system would take the concept. We saw all kinds of developer interviews elaborating on this excitement. It seemed as though everything was set for the system to have a booming launch. In the end, however, that excitement didn’t translate to consumer buying behavior. I think there are three main reasons why this is the case.

First of all, I think it has a lot to do with 3D having a ton of “shock value,” but little “sustained value.” By that I mean that the novelty of 3D, especially glasses-less 3D, seems really impressive at first, but ceases to be exciting or interesting after a relatively short time.

I remember looking at Ocarina of Time 3D at E3 2011 and thinking, “Wow, they did a really good job adding depth to such an old game!” If they could do such a good job with an old N64 game, I couldn’t wait to see what they’d be able to do with future games built from the ground up for the system. Inevitably, however, I found that the 3D wasn’t really offering much in terms of gameplay or fun – instead it was just a drain on my battery life, a detriment to anti-aliasing, and so on. It created more problems than it did value.

But Nintendo thought it offered a lot of value. That’s why they charged console-level dollars for it.

Second of all, I think that Nintendo saw people constantly shelling out cash for Wii and the DS line and believed that they’d have little trouble selling 3DS. This probably factored into the price issue, too. But what Nintendo failed to take into account is that the economy of 2011 was very different than the economy of 2006.

In 2006 we were running on an artificial high; in 2011, the stark realities of recession had long set in. This was not the environment for pitching a high-priced handheld. This was the kind of historical moment where it was more critical than ever for luxury hardware to be affordable.

Finally, I think Nintendo confused the industry reaction with the mass market reaction. Just because a bunch of people paid to go experience the latest in gaming adore something doesn’t mean the people who have to actually pay for the entertainment are going to think it’s a worthy investment.

This isn’t a Nintendo-specific problem as much as it is an industry problem in general. People think that E3 is the center of the gaming universe, and it simply isn’t. You have to gauge the reactions of your customers, the people who haven’t bitten the hook yet, not the people who already have something of a stake in your product – whether as developers/publishers, media people, or diehard Nintendo fans that will worship anything the company does.

Remember that Wii’s showing at E3, while it was actually pretty positively received, was marked to a much greater degree by skepticism in the face of the much more powerful PlayStation 3. That’s why almost everyone was surprised when Wii was so successful. This should serve as a sobering reminder that not everything that we hear out of the E3 media buzz actually winds up holding any water at the end of the day.

3D is Not a Content-Friendly Feature

I’ve waded through some of the market-related issues with the 3D effect, but here’s the core of the problem: 3D doesn’t actually offer anything in terms of improving the content of video games. It can’t by default if there’s an option for games to be played in 2D – the game has to be able to stand on its own without 3D.

Game content has little to do with how things are seen and everything to do with what there is to see – that means things like environments, characters, enemies, obstacles, and so on. Does 3D really enhance any of these things in any meaningful way? It might make environments pop out of the screen, but it doesn’t actually impact the artistry, the elements involved, or the core game design.

Bearing this in mind, and setting all the other issues about price and market impact aside, is the prevalence of 3D even justified in the first place? I’ll answer this question for you: no, it isn’t.

Customers aren’t stupid. They won’t buy something unless they really think it brings the best bang for their buck. And judging by the slow performance of 3DS last year, it wasn’t 3D that brought the masses – it was good, old-fashioned game content.

While I love the heck out of the Wii U GamePad, I suspect that it might inevitably garner a similar indifference from the wider public. It’s all going to depend on whether people see value in the ability to operate using a second screen – whether that means using a touch screen for menus, displaying content without having to use the TV, or incorporating the GamePad into the living room. Fortunately, we can at least say that the GamePad offers more than just a shock value gimmick, since it brings additional utility and a potentially superior interface.

But will the masses agree? We’ll find out when Wii U hits stores this fall.